The Mazda MX5 has always been a favourite with Drivers, enthusing about the sublime handling and a fun way to go driving ever since it was released in 1989. The blend of rear wheel drive, lightweight, fine handling and open top motoring in an affordable package has resulted in strong sales. However, almost as much discussion and opinion has also been had over hairdressing! This is something that seems to polarise views of the car. Is it okay to drive an MX5 and still be a “bloke”..? After a series of cars that seemed to offer little to counter the view that you needed to be interested in cutting hair to own and drive an MX5, this fourth generation goes a long way to silencing the naysayers. The fourth generation MX-5 is quoted as being 105 mm shorter and 100 kg lighter than its predecessor, putting the vehicle’s kerb weight at 1,030 kg. The car is based on the Mazda SKYACTIV technology, a Mazda design philosophy that they state takes cars to the next level by redefining everything, from the engine and transmission to the platform. The story behind this revolution is not just about cutting-edge technology and sophisticated engineering, Mazda also believe that history and heritage also played an important role. In this model there is certainly much in the MX5 history to take into account. In New Zealand, the range consists of two main models; The 1.5L GSX with the smaller engine, cloth interior and fewer options, and the 2.0L Limited. The model tested here is the 2.0L Limited manual and is the “top of the range” model. Fitted with the SKYACTIV-G 2.0 litre in-line, 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC S-VT petrol engine, delivering 118kW @ 6,000rpm and 200Nm of torque @ 4,600rpm, acceleration is swift at around the 6 second mark to 100 KPH. This is mated to a SKYACTIV-MT 6-speed Manual transmission. Mazda quote the kerb weight as 1030kg and so it’s light by modern car standards.


First impressions

I pick the car up on a sunny day, the “Soul Red Metallic” paint looks fantastic and is very bright and really “pops”, the hood is down and it is sat there soaking up the sun and just looks right to me. The design looks much “tougher” with some great styling cues such as the rear lights, front LED running lights, and new aggressive front end. I think it looks fantastic. Balancing a fresh new appearance, giving a nod to the the old British sports car and still appealing to both genders, quite some achievement. Some may call still call it a hairdresser’s car,i think it maybe closer to a barber’s car, one that specialises in the Undercut haircut made popular in the TV series, The Peaky Blinders that is set in Birmingham underworld in the 1920’s – tough enough? I think so.

The interior is a cosseting place to be and makes you feel “at one” with the car. At 6′ tall I could still fit in comfortably with a little bit of extra room to go. The front wings have a nice flow to them, reminiscent of a Lotus Elise and creates a very nice view, reminiscent of sitting in a Group C sports car with the sweeping windscreen and bonnet. A multi-information display sits in the middle of the dash and is not overpowering as some recent screens have become, and it’s intuitive to use, with the controls near the gear stick. It took me a few minutes to find the screen dimming function at night the first time I was out as it is “buried” deep within one of the setup menus. The auto dim function not being as effective as I would like, quickly sorted though once I found the correct menu.


Behind the leather-clad steering wheel, the dashboard is laid out with the rev counter in the middle, like every good sports orientated car should! The temperature gauge is also interesting, it has a small portion for the temperature reading up to 100 degrees C and then an expanded scale between that and 120. It looks like the engineers expected the engine to be worked hard. The feel of the steering wheel is very nice and fitted my hands perfectly, somehow making the experience feel more special.
The wheel mounted controls fall nicely to hand and are not operated by accident when driving.
One thing I did notice is that I think the car was originally designed for the left hand market, the reason for this is that there is a big bulge in the transmission tunnel that extends under the driver’s seat and encroaches slightly on the foot area, that gets in the way a little if you wish to bring your legs back to stretch when on a long drive. The handbrake is also situated on the right hand side of the transmission tunnel, closest to the driver when it would be better on the other side giving more cabin space in the compact confines of the MX5. The telephone holder is also on the far side of the transmission tunnel, on the passenger side foot well. These features do not impact at all, just interesting observations. There is also no 12v outlet that I could find, Mazda instead relying on twin USB sockets mounted in the dash. One neat feature I really like was the boot release, located near the “rego” plate in the form of a discrete button, so no unsightly releases spoiling the rear end here.


A blend of traditional 1960’s British sports car and modern sports car are apparent inside, with the circular vents and “chrome” instrument bezels that are reminiscent of an MGB, for example. These are mounted alongside an “infotainment” system and very modern overall styling. I am still not 100% convinced by the blend, the interior may have been better with a ‘modern only’ theme to match the exterior. The gear stick is very short and is clearly designed with enthusiastic driving in mind. When sat in the driver’s seat you get a wonderful sweeping interior sensation that Mazda has done very well. I particularly like the painted door tops and dash inserts that break what could have been a wall of black. The detailing is very nicely done. My first impressions are that the car looks good, has some great design features and feels a nice place to sit, I could not wait to see what it goes like.


How does it Drive

In short, the Mazda MX5 2.0L Limited is very enjoyable to drive. Whether it be cruising with the top down, driving enthusiastically across country or in the rain with the soft top up. The character seems to change depending on the application. Cosseting and comforting, even feeling snug somehow in the rain with the pattering on the canvas roof, heated seats on to warm you. Pressing on across country the chassis comes back asking for more, and provides enjoyment and a driving experience that leaves a smile on your face for so long that it becomes painful, the only reason why you would want stop! I have owned a Lotus Elise 1111R for ten years and have done 60,000 kms in it and this is what I am directly comparing this MX5 with. It will be interesting to compare and contrast a mid engined sports oriented car, with a front engined convertible.
The MX5 “fits” so well. I say “fits” as you really do feel part of the car. The seating is snug, your hands grip around the steering wheel sculpture just so, the gear stick falls naturally to hand as it it moves from steering wheel to stick, the dash layout is nice and adds to the sense of occasion, and of course you are low compared with other road users which increases the sensation of speed as well. The steering is light, even negotiating city traffic the steering did not feel connected to the road and feedback was limited, even a little “numb” around center. The engine is very sweet even with such low KM’s on it (do engines even free up with use these days..?) and revs freely and smoothly,progress across town is fun. The short shift 6-speed gearbox ratios are well matched to the engine characteristics with a buttery smooth shift. Clutch bite is fine with and there is plenty of feel and travel to avoid any stalling or Kangarooing down the road.


As I head out of town I come across a series of bends that I have driven in a “spirited” fashion a thousand times in the Elise, time to see what it goes like. As I turn into the first right hander the front end bites hard and fast, almost creating oversteer, and at the same time the car leans significantly, and quite unexpectedly. I thought it would corner flatter and have less aggressive turn in, the MX5 feels very sharp, almost too sharp. The MX5 settles into the corner after this initial entry phase and the body roll sort of settles at a particular point, but the steering continues to be super sensitive through the transition of the corner, to the point that it feels like one of the rear tyres is underinflated. I drive conservatively to the nearest petrol station to check. The tyre pressures are fine.
I head out again to some quiet roads in the middle of nowhere to explore the handling traits a little more. Again, as the MX5 enters the corner the steering is “very fast” at the initial turn in phase around center with little feel (I am used to no power steering in the Elise), the car seems to snap into the turn and on comes the lean at the same time, then as you balance the car on the throttle and wheel input you have to be super accurate and gentle with the steering otherwise this sort of porpoise effect occurs, whereby the weight transfer seems to rock between the front and rear, almost as if one wheel is off the ground. I am not talking about inducing oversteer by heavy use of the throttle either here, just sensitive throttle inputs.
With traction control off and the car starts to feel more fluid. Now as you turn in you still get the snap and the body roll, but if the throttle is squeezed a little bit you get this wonderful slight rotation at the rear, the amount of turn can now be dictated by the throttle input alone. I am not talking about 40 degree tail out, smoke billowing of the tires drifting here, indeed from the outside it may not even be noticeable. This is very subtle, only really felt though the seat and steering wheel (but very enjoyable) the only tell outside this is going on I expect is the subdued tire squeal as they break traction slightly. But this is a simply wonderful place to drive the car, right on the balance of traction where the car is just so balanced and enjoyable, and what’s more, safe.


It is in this environment that the sharp steering comes into play and I start to understand it more. You enter the corner and sort of catch the car with the throttle in one fluid movement, I am talking about fun motoring, precision motoring at 50kmh. Perhaps this is why the rear tires are narrow by today’s standards, and they should be cheaper too (which is good as I think owners will need to replace them often due to the fun factor). This car is so much fun to drive, and safer than the Elise. In the Elise if you get it wrong or overstep the mark the back end snaps out and you require all kinds of concentration to gather it all up, with the MX5 you lift of the throttle a little, balance with some steering and you could be pottering to the shops. Sublime. It is only in this state does it feel like the Mazda needs a little more straight line grunt to keep up with the handling, the rest of the time it has more than enough, it is after all not about straight line rocket ship performance.


If we dial the driving demands back a little bit from exploring the very edge of the handling capabilities and back into an envelope that is likely to be driven what do we find? The suspension is pliable and not crashy, the interior cossets the owner and passenger nicely, other than the fact that storage is very limited in the cabin (there is a small storage compartment that is lockable between the seats and two more storage bins not accessible when driving) I think you could quite easily drive all day and not feel fatigued. There is no buffeting, the side windows extend backward enough to keep the air away from you, the windscreen height is high enough that you do not get wind buffeting on the top of your head and the small rear wind deflector does a good job. It is easy to hold conversation at 100 KM/H and you could keep this pace up across New Zealand’s wonderful back roads, although very capable of sitting the state highways it would be a waste to do so.
The 2.0L Limited tested has lane departure warning fitted. The system replicates the sound you get by running over the ripple strips at the side of road, by playing a tone through the stereo! The tone reminded of an early 90’s computer game, indeed it caused fits of laughter to my ten year old and brings giggles each time it activated and a sense of challenge as to how long the tone can be activated – quite some time it seems! The soft top is very well designed, and can be operated one handed either up or down. Once up the MX5 creates this wonderful snug environment and is a very pleasant place to be. I was worried about leaks. Due to a lack of rain recently we conducted a hose test on the drive, this is likely to be more extreme than any rain in Wellington with a Ten year old boy at the controls, and it passed with flying colours, no water entered the cabin at all. The rear window is glass and has a heating element and so the MX5 really can be used year round with confidence.


Second opinion (Rob Clubley)

I had the MX5 for the last couple of days of its time with Drive Life. The weather was great, so I was able to take full advantage, and drove almost everywhere with the roof down, even at night. The roof is really easy to operate and can be opened or closed in less than ten seconds. In fact it’s so light that it can be operated by a five year-old (my daughter tested this). I was surprised at how civilised it felt at 100kph on the highway, both with top up or down. Similarly the ride was excellent when cruising around town. Another surprise was the stereo, it was way better than I expected it to sound in a car with no roof.

I love the design of the car, inside and out. It gets a lot of positive attention from pedestrians and other road users. You sit low and snug inside the car, and everything is nicely to hand. I had a bit of trouble seeing the central display screen in sunlight but I didn’t play with the settings, I was having too much fun driving.

How is it to drive? I can honestly say it was the most fun car I’ve driven. At times it had me laughing out loud, after negotiating a roundabout with a little bit of enthusiasm or a series of tight turns. The short gear shift is excellent, performance is just enough to have a great time without being over the top. I loved the way it cornered, grip is excellent and I found the steering to be just right. Coming from my daily drive – a Skoda wagon – I didn’t notice excessive body roll. With the traction control on, if you prod the throttle on a roundabout it will slip just a tiny bit, then sort it out for you. For someone not used to regularly driving sports cars this makes for great, safe fun. It also made my daughter request that I did that on every corner.

I really didn’t want to give it back to Mazda when the Monday morning came around. It even had me grinning in Wellington’s slow-moving rush hour traffic with the sun shining, roof down and Oasis playing on the stereo. The MX5 is a really good fun little car and I’ve mentally added it to my fantasy garage.

What do we think

In summary, I can think of little in the way of competition for this car, maybe the Fiat Spider that is released later in the year is direct competitor and perhaps the MINI convertible. If the need for a soft top is ignored then maybe the BRZ and GT86 offer a similar drive experience. To me the Mazda MX5 2.0L Limited offered 85% of my Elise in pure driving experience and “prestige”, in every other way it surpassed it… There, that should create some discussion. Okay, at the edge of the driving envelope the MX5 falls a little short, but I do not think this is the Target market for the car. When used in a more common environment it is near perfect. Enough straight-line performance to make it feel fast, great safe handling with which to make swift progress across country. Great attention to detail in the integration of the soft top so that is not only easy to operate but provides sufficiently high standards of fit that it feels like you could be in a coupe. The styling is strong enough to ensure that male buyers are not distracted by the risk of being asking what they do for a living.

I think Mazda have created a great car, and one that is worthy of five Chevrons.


Vehicle Type 2-door Roadster
Starting Price $40,995 1.5 GSX

$46,995 2.0L Limited

Tested Price $46,995
Engine SKYACTIV-G 2.0 litre in-line, 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC S-VT petrol engine
Transmission SKYACTIV-MT 6-speed Manual
0 – 100 kph 6 seconds
Kerb Weight 1030KG
Length x Width x Height (mm) 3915 x 1735 x  123o
Cargo Capacity 130 L
Fuel Tank 45 L
ANCAP Safety Ratings Not yet rated.
Warranty 5 year/unlimited Km New Vehicle Warranty
5 year/unlimited Km Corrosion and Anti-perforation Warranty
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